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Mercedes first build the Geländewagen, which literally translates to off-road or all-terrain vehicle, as a military vehicle for the King of Iran.
Repurposed for civilians in 1979, that rugged, archaic first-generation G-Wagen would stay in production for 39 years and eventually catch on with rappers, celebrities and Instagram models.
Yet the G-Wagen is a familiar sight in Beverly Hills, a Range Rover rival with more attitude. So when Mercedes finally redesigned it after nearly 40 years, there was a simple guiding principle: don't mess it up. So despite a new body, a massively upgraded interior, better driving dynamics and more space, the 2019 Mercedes-Benz G550 retains the old-school charm and boxy style of the original. It's a winning formula that makes the G-Wagen unlike anything else on the road.
Despite being the oldest design on the market by a few decades, the last Mercedes G-Class set a sales record in 2017. That's in no small part because the G-Class sits at the intersection of two hot markets: trucks and restomods.
Restomodding, for the uninitiated, is the practice of taking old car designs and updating them with modern technology and performance. Singer, for instance, is a California-based company that reimagines Porsche 911s from the 1980s with updated components. Despite conversions starting at $395,000, the company has a two-year waiting list.
The G550, though, is a restomod that you can have right now. For $153,115 as tested, you get all of the style and coolness of a military off-roader from the 1970s with the comfort and technology of a modern Mercedes. But despite its newfound fame as the go-to shuttle for Hollywood stars, the Benz hasn't forgotten where it came from.
With a meaty brush guard, lots of ground clearance and a full-time four-wheel-drive system with lockable differentials, the G-Wagen is built to handle serious off-roading. The wheels are pushed right up to the corners, which makes climbing steep terrain a non-issue, while a torquey V-8 engine and a low-range gearbox give you the oomph needed to bound up trails.
The $6,500 premium paint job may not encourage you to push it to the limit, but the solidity of the G550 basically begs you to beat on it. On rutted trails or gravel roads, the boxy Benz soaks up abuse at all speeds. It feels more sure-footed and tough than, say, a Range Rover. In fact, the only other truck we've tested with the same eager attitude off-road is the Ford F-150 Raptor.
But the Raptor didn't have the G550's cabin. Perhaps the biggest improvement over the old G-Class, the interior is filled with plush materials and modern technology. While the old G550 was clearly designed in a pre-infotainment, utilitarian age where cupholders were seen as unnecessary conveniences, the new one takes Mercedes' industry-leading interior design language and makes it more blocky and suitable for the squared-off Geländewagen.
There are two massive displays, a plethora of brushed aluminum trim and lots of open-pore ash wood trim. Especially with the multicolor LED ambient lighting on and the massaging seats working away, it's easy to see this as an interior befitting the $153,115 price.
Considering that the G550 is more than quick enough to overwhelm the chassis, we probably wouldn't recommend stepping up to the G63 unless you're not fussed about value and want the top-dog G-Class as a status symbol or straight-line dragster.
In general, if you prioritize road manners over style and capability, the G-Wagen probably isn't for you. Despite the major leap forward with the new generation, the G-Class is still an old-school truck at heart. It's not as comfortable, spacious or athletic as high-end crossovers from Land Rover, BMW and even Mercedes itself.
Finally, we have to say that the G-Wagen is expensive and inefficient on fuel at 17 mpg on highways and 13 mpg in the city. Most prospective buyers looking at a luxurious V-8 German off-roader are probably aware of both of those aspects, but from a purely practical point of view the G-Class is more expensive than SUVs that offer more technology and refinement, albeit nowhere near as much capability or style.
The G-Class starts at $125,495 with the requisite destination charge. While our tester's Desert Sand paint was a $6,500 add-on, there are a lot of good colors available at no extra charge. The $12,200 Exclusive Interior Package, though, is a good way to make the G-Class feel as nice inside as it looks outside. Plus, it's hard to skip massaging seats.
We'd also pay the $850 Mercedes charges to upgrade from traditional gauges to a 12.3-inch configurable cluster that can show navigation, multimedia and driving information. We'd skip the adaptive suspension, as nobody really needs a sport mode in their fridge-shaped SUV. You'll probably end up checking a few cosmetic options to get the G-Class looking like you want it, but figure $137,550 for a G-Class with the options we recommend.
The G-Wagen is a strange vehicle to recommend in that it is inherently absurd. A V-8 box with 416 horsepower, locking differentials, massaging seats and a design from the 1970s is inherently a weird proposition. There's nothing else like it out there.
And that's what makes it so good. While BMW X5s and Mercedes GLEs blend together, the G-Class is entirely different. It's unique, tons of fun and incredibly competent off-road. Value-conscious shoppers would be better served by traditional luxury crossovers, but if you want capability, status and absurdity, the G-Wagen stands in a class of one.
Driving Experience: 4
Price as tested: $153,115
Ratings out of 5.